"Imani All Mine," by Connie Porter. Houghton Mifflin. 212 pages. $23.
One difference between life and art is that the latter attempts to comprehend the former. "Imani All Mine," the second "adult" novel by Connie Porter, who also wrote the immensely successful Addy series for adolescents, blurs that distinction.
Yes, "Imani All Mine" catches the environment and especially the voice of 15-year-old Tasha Dawson, who lives with her mother and infant daughter Imani in a Buffalo slum. Theirs is a world of drugs and sudden violence, a world without fathers and where the mothers sell their food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar.
Most pathetically, it's the kind of place where the local high school must include a nursery for students' babies. Instead of making sense of her existence, however, Tasha merely makes do, and the book seldom looks beyond that blunt reality.
The Dawsons live next to a young dealer named June Bug and his gossipy, malt-liquor-drinking mother, Miss Odetta, and near Tasha's best friend, Eboni, and her mom, Miss Lovey, a religious woman and excellent cook whose name defines her character. The problem is that we don't really get a sense of the narrator herself between these schematic opposites.
In Tasha's vernacular, all events large and small are recounted with the same odd passivity. She is raped by one boy and falls in love with another, but the two could just as well be reversed. Rather than emerge from the protagonist's nature, events in "Imani All Mine" merely occur -- and recur; they have no reason and little consequence. Even after a terrible tragedy, Tasha rushes into the kind of situation that led to her sorrow. Now maybe this dismal sequence reflects the randomness of life in the slums, and maybe the hidden tragedy of such a life is that it is unconscious of its dead end repetitiveness, but it's an author's responsibility to tell us why such a life matters. Instead, Porter presents action, not perception, redemption without transformation. If there's no change, then what's the point?
Despite its narrative flaws, however, "Imani All Mine" is written with a compelling honesty. The book is at its best when Tasha, speaking in a vivid street language, comments on anything from "Miss Odetta throwing her two cent in. And what I really want to be doing when she do is throw her back a penny in change" to "one of them girls in Seventeen who got good self-esteem." Later, more poetically, she muses, "[S]weetness don't always last. Sometimes it get washed away. Sometimes it get worn away. Sometimes it just disappear in the time it take to close your eyes."
If the book remained on the level of a young woman's fragmentary thoughts, it might have conveyed a sad verisimilitude, but Porter forces a resolution, and the final scenes feel artificial. Tasha's ultimate refuge in Miss Lovey's church has no more authenticity than Seventeen magazine. It's too bad, because that's where the truly redemptive power of art might have come in, and then Tasha as well as a reader might have been able to tell the difference between a life that's simply lived and a life that's worth living.
Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent novels are "After" and, forthcoming, "Signs and Wonders." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.
Pub Date: 01/31/99